Learning to Fail (Love Your Art, Poor as it May Be)

photo 1 (13)Sometimes I feel that if any real literature major sits me down for a cup of coffee, he or she will quickly discover that I am somewhat of a fraud. I have not read Moby Dick or Great Expectations (though I once wrote a paper about the latter after finding it unreadable in a college class and skimming!), nor can I whip through a novel in an afternoon, like Nick, who has read 3500 pages in the past month, nor am I always up to date on the latest New Yorker essay or school of literary criticism. And in a way, this does not trouble me. While at Hamilton, I drank in every bit of theory I could find, but my essays were always analyses of character, relating form and content back to the human essence of each story, again and again. One of my favorite books ever written is Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, a story of the building of Toronto, told through the voices of several emigrants. Somewhere in this beautiful, historic narrative is a line that has stuck with me in the six years since I first read it, with special resonance in the past year: “The first sentence of every novel should be: ‘Trust me, this will take time, but there is order here, very faint, very human.’ Meander if you want to get to town.”

Try as I might to spin my post-collegiate life into a story of self-discovery, replete with the broke glamor of a writer working in a restaurant, applying for jobs in cafes, and drinking whiskey lemonade on fire escapes, I must admit that I have spent much of the past year meandering. I have tried, in over one hundred and three applications, to get various full time jobs, to learn how to budget my weekly groceries, to keep an urban apartment clean and learn to bike across the Manhattan bridge. A great deal of what I have done in this past year has been the slow, tough act of growing up, learning to stand on my own, and, bleak as it may initially sound, learning to fail.

Say what you will about all-girls schools and small liberal arts colleges—I may have grown overly fond of wooded clearings and become slightly stunted in regards to the opposite sex, but for seventeen years of my life, I learned. I learned how to construct a five-paragraph essay and then disregard that entire format. I learned the difference between Neo-Classic and Romantic paintings, the fact that Charlemagne was born on Christmas day in the year 800, how to properly dig an archaeological trench. In the process, I learned to make friends, do the monkey bars and live in my own dorm room, and as elementary school progressed into academia, I grew up, sometimes painfully and with reluctance, sometimes in great leaps and bounds. I may not have gone to Eaton or Harvard, but I owe my education, and my parents for giving it to me, a great deal.

photo 2 (12)In seventeen years of education, however, I never learned to fail as I have in this past year. With a few exceptions, everything we did in school seemed to push us closer to graduation, fill our brains with knowledge, teach us how to make and keep friendships. There was always a sense of forward momentum, and much of our lives in the first years after college are spent trying to regain that sense of control, that seasonal rhythm, the feeling that we were moving steadily in one direction. There was a point in the past year where I declared to my closest friends that I felt as if I was drowning. What I wish I had known to say at the time was that I really felt as if I was treading water, standing in place while I waited for progress to take hold. Jobs and relationships do not come as readily as graduation day, and, as my friend Liz so wisely pointed out recently, real life moves a lot more slowly than we expect it to. This has been, without a doubt, one of the most difficult years of my life. But it has also been one of the most important, and the most wonderful.

This blog started as a way to keep in touch with our academic selves, to grasp and retain those intellectual and literary aspects that the nine-to-five grind was sure to take away from us. It started as a way to connect to one another and to the world of books, but what it has become is a far less erudite, far less directed way for Nora and me to give voice to our experiences, to speak to our beloved readers and each other, to meander on our way to town. It is also the way in which I have come to tell the world when something momentous or wonderful happens, which is part of my aim this week. But before doing so, let me finish my current train of thought.

I began this post two weeks ago, right after having been rejected from a newspaper that I felt was my dream employer. I began it intending to give a resigned but hopeful update on my still-stagnant career path, to urge myself and all of you to hold tight to the things you care about, to love your art, poor as it may be (a line, I must admit, I stole from Alan Alda, who took it from a Roman emperor). One day, I will be a writer, for a newspaper or a magazine, or perhaps an editor of books or journals who spends her spare hours composing narrative essays. I will get there, no matter how many years it takes, what I do during the day, whether or not I have to go to graduate school. Learning to fail has only strengthened my resolve, my determination to go on doing what I love, whether or not it is the profession on my business card.

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I made myself this promise, wrote most of this post, and then I went off on vacation to Cape Cod with my family,where, one day on the sand dunes of a beach in West Yarmouth, remarkably and without the stress and drama which every other interview seemed to entail, I got a phone call offering me a job. I am going to start work on Tuesday, as a grant-writer for an arts-education non-profit, a profession that would never have occurred to me even a month ago, but which, after a great deal of thought and advice from those I love, has become something very promising and exciting. Rather than write about art all day long, which is how I initially thought I would spend the next year, I will be organizing and composing persuasive proposals to bring non-traditional , arts-based teaching into the New York Public School system. I have never written a real grant in my life, so hopefully it will be something I can learn to do well! I am, to what was initially my own surprise, nothing short of thrilled. But I thought rather than title and begin this post with I GOT A JOB!!!!!!, which is how I was tempted to do it, I would give credence to my initial post, and try to work in my thoughts on failure with my more recent success, to tie together the good and the bad and thus try to illustrate the turbulence of the last year.

This is all to say, in a rather roundabout, verbose way (but lets be honest, what else have you come to expect from me?), that sometimes the road is winding and full of failure and and deeply wonderful. Sometimes we must resign ourselves to remain happy-free-confused-and-lonely-at-the-same-time, until life works itself out around us. I strive too hard for control, something which I am trying to teach myself to relinquish. Instead, I am deeply and inexpressibly grateful—to Sam for helping me to get this job, to my mother for listening to me moan and helping me to stand, to my dad for always believing I could get there, to Amanda for arepas and nail dates and being patient enough to live in a tiny square room with me for an entire year, to Nora for being my blog buddy, to Nick for too many things to list, and to countless others, including all of you.

So with this in mind, and new paths on the horizon, there isn’t much left to do now but keep meandering, this time with a little more direction, to hold tight to words and one another, and to allow ourselves that moment, at the end of a day when something has finally gone right, to feel an unbridled and unsought rush of pure joy.

Thank you all, as always, for sticking with us.

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Those Are Riches, Girls

photoThere’s hardly any getting around it, and those of you who have been following us from the very beginning will have already realized: it has been a year since this blog began, and we have failed to achieve our goal. Since June 4, 2012, Nora and I have not read all six volumes of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. In fact, we have barely completed two. At this rate, it will take us at least three years to do what we were confident we could do in one. Julie Powell we are not. And frankly, that is something that does not really bother me. Though this year marker forces us to take a moment and reflect upon our project, and the progressing state of our lives, it is less a milestone of failure than a sign of the ways in which we have changed. We have not made it yet. But neither are we giving up.

Life, in all of its wonderful and heartbreaking chaos, has quite simply gotten in the way. Nora has been through two internships, one of which turned into a job, and spent most of her afternoons and nights working for a company she loves, in a career she finds fulfilling. The fact that this meant that most of her days from three to midnight were spent working the night shift at her job only indicated how passionate she felt about the work she was doing, and she remains for me one of the most professionally successful people our age I know.

I have progressed from an unpaid internship to a slew of nearly a hundred job applications, to working two restaurant jobs while writing freelance and interning at a community newspaper. It is hardly the tracked career I hoped I would have when I moved to New York, nor is it especially conducive to having a predictable schedule or a normal social life. I am in a constant state of stress, and rarely have more than $30 to my name. And yet I am happier than I have been in a very long time.

IMG_5870Life, I have found, moves a lot more slowly than we would like it to at times, and far too quickly at others. Nora and I originally thought that reading 80 pages a week would be easy compared to our college workload. And if Proust had turned out to be a little less like quicksand, perhaps we would have succeeded. But instead, we plunged into a literary labyrinth and entered the real world, filled with rent and subway commutes and long starlit nights drinking whiskey lemonade and laughing with the people we love.

And let’s just admit it: this blog was never really about Proust anyway. It may have begun that way—that may have been the impetus for our collaboration, some late-night inspiration wrought by days of sleep-deprivation and too many soy lattes in our Hamilton student-run café. It may have begun as an attempt to keep in touch with some intellectual pursuit we feared we might forget. But it became so much more.

photoThis week, I got up early and, as is my habit, lay in bed until the hour when most people are awake, checking my emails, writing, and watching Netflix. I got a newsletter from my high school and skimmed through it, skimming the requests for money and the class notes and pausing at the section on graduation, which took place this past week. Alongside pictures of the Class of 2013, wearing the floor-length white dresses I graduated in five years ago, were excerpts from the commencement address, which was given by my tenth-grade English teacher, Mary Shoemaker. Mrs. Shoemaker was quirky and full of life, and I remember her love of Keats and quiet encouragement being one of the things that drove me to study literature in college. I clicked on the link to a video of her speech, and was almost immediately brought to tears.

“Gold pales in comparison to the rewards we reap” she told the Class of 2013, reflecting upon her more than thirty years of experience (she is retiring this summer). She told the story of a strange, brilliant girl whom she had helped lead through the trials of middle school and watched blossom into a poet, admired by her peers and celebrated by the school. This was, in an anecdote, the reward of teaching, Mrs. Shoemaker concluded, and then finished by advising the class, in the simplest terms, to pursue their passions, a word which, she admitted, is far too often used in our society.

 To me, in its truest sense, passion is the thing without which your soul shrivels, the thing you must do, no matter what the cost. So if there is one message to my ramblings today, it is this: while you’re still free to do so, before mortgages and bills and babies crowd your landscape, take a run on that not-so-sensible or lucrative path that’s always beckoned. Be a waitress in New York while you try for your big break on Broadway. Starve in a garret while you wait for that publisher to call saying she loves your poetry.

(This is where, finding the speech too close to home, I really started to reach for my tissues!)

In the end, you will not find happiness in what you own, but in who you are. I do not own a Porche, or a Chalet in Switzerland, or six closets full of clothes. But I join in retirement the man I have loved since I was not much older than the girls on this stage. We have three kind and smart and funny children and a glorious daughter-in-law who love us and love one another. And every day—every day—I have loved what I have done, being caught up in the world of thought that is education. I have loved what I’ve taught. I have loved the girls I have taught, and I have loved the people with whom I have taught. Those are riches, girls. Those are riches.

IMG_5886She finished to a standing ovation, smiled, and left the stage. I wiped my eyes, watched it again, and sent it to my college friends. Graduation speeches are so rarely memorable (the one at my college Commencement was truly terrible, so perhaps it will live on a little longer than the dull ones!), and hers was so very poignant and unassuming, that I have spent most of the past week thinking back on it.

In the last year, I have not finished Proust. I have not gotten a full-time job, nor have I fallen in love, bought a car, or completed any of the other life milestones by which we mark success. But I have kept reading, writing, and laughing. I have found this blog a wonderful outlet for a creative type of reflection which I cannot express anywhere else. And I have become closer to Nora, whom I consider a very dear friend, and without whom I would have a hard time imagining my life here.

IMG_5826And every day when I board the bus to the newspaper, every night when I return home from work at midnight, my feet sore and my stomach far too full of strawberry-rhubarb lemonade and sugar bacon, every time I sit on the floor of my shower, hugging my knees and wondering when life is finally going to sort itself out, I remember that I am a writer. I am being paid, however little, to do what I love, for the first time in my life, and any professional success I may have had as a banker or lawyer pales in comparison. I may not have a West Village townhouse, or even, for that matter, a salary. But instead I have a worn down, light-filled apartment inhabited by bugs and dust and dreams. I have a computer with a cracked screen, 97 job applications, and a host of stories I now write for a newspaper that puts my name in print. Though I have yet to find romance, I have a family that loves me and friends who make me laugh and hug me when I cry, and once came ten miles in the rain just to make sure I was okay. And I have words, so very many words, tumbling over each other and clogging my thoughts and only sometimes emerging in a comprehensive whole. But when they fit together, it is as magical as anything that exists on this earth.

And those, I promise you, are riches enough.